Musical notes: Justin Bieber's TikTok-friendly Yummy is too eager to go viral

The Guardian’s new monthly column gathers all the ideas, trends and other musical flotsam that slips through the cultural net. Share your own thoughts on the month in music, and we’ll feature some next month

Pop and rock music, in its multifarious forms, seems to shift faster than ever. In 2020, we’re bombarded not just with music – more of which is readily available to everyone than at any point in history – but an unrelenting barrage of the stuff that goes along with music: visuals, scenes, theories, arguments, counter-arguments and controversies both real and manufactured. It can feel overwhelming, impossible for even the most plugged-in, social media-literate listener to keep up with. No matter how much of the waterfront you try to cover, it’s hard to rid yourself of the nagging sensation that you might have missed out on something.

That’s as true of us in the music media as it is of any other listener. The idea behind the Guardian’s new monthly Musical Notes column is to collect a miscellany of smaller ideas, thoughts, experiences and trends about music: stuff that’s interesting, striking or telling, but doesn’t necessarily fit within the Guardian’s standard feature, review or news formats. I’ll be contributing each month along with music editors Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes – but we also want to include you, too. Share your thoughts, ideas and experiences about any genre of music each month in the comments section – be it a song or gig you’ve loved, a trend you’ve spotted, or indeed anything musical that piqued your interest – and we’ll publish a selection of them in the following month’s column. For now, here’s Ben and Laura to kick off the series with what they’ve been reflecting on in the first week of 2020. Alexis Petridis

Justin Bieber’s TikTok turn

Lap it up … watch the video for Justin Bieber’s Yummy

Justin Bieber’s previous album, 2015’s Purpose, was a triumphant third act: not only did it draw a line under years of juvenile delinquency (drugs, racist jokes, negligence to a pet monkey), it did so with the best songs of his career: the earnest and feathery reggaeton of Sorry, the beautiful trop-house of What Do You Mean, and Where Are Ü Now with its weird, faraway “dolphin flute”. After finding God and getting married, the stage is now set for the next Bieber story, and its opening chapter is a song called Yummy.

Released last week, there are some things to like about it – the way the melody bounces up into the lovely, yearning upper range of his voice; the opalescent chords – but there are plenty more to hate. The shameless plug for his streetwear brand Drew House; the cringeworthy use of trap ebonics (“hundred racks … get litty babe”); the sense of him being about two years behind the curve of hazy R&B, a real shame when Purpose was so trendsetting. But most of all, that chorus, which sounds like a Lonely Island parody of a pop-R&B song. Its use of baby talk to vaguely gesture at a world of sexual pleasure will make your genitals involuntarily fold up inside your abdomen.

More troubling than the vision of he and his wife cooing this at each other is the feeling that this has been written for one thing in mind: TikTok. Bieber joined the lipsyncing social network on the day of Yummy’s release, and its chorus seems designed purely for Gen Z-ers in yoga pants to spoon frozen acai into their mouths while miming along to the word “yummy”.

Hit songs such as Regard’s Ride It, Ashnikko’s Stupid, and Arizona Zervas’s Roxanne have all recently got a boost from going viral in TikTok dance or mime videos, and this is what Bieber is trying to leverage – but the crucial difference is those tracks are, respectively, more danceable, witty and tuneful. The deeper problem is that a generation grown on highly sophisticated, multilayered internet culture can detect bullshit a mile off: this is so nakedly eager to go viral that it almost certainly won’t.

Yummy will probably reach No 1 off Bieber’s sheer star power anyway. He doesn’t need the TikTok virality, but craves its pop-cultural relevance – and that desperation chafes awkwardly against the spiritually grounded marital bliss of his current image. Ben Beaumont-Thomas

RiP to my iPod

An iPod Classic.
Old school … an iPod Classic. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

I hated iPods. Certain kids at school had them the moment they were released in 2001, storing the pitiful four albums they owned on an expensive device designed to hold 1,000 songs. I was 12 and already fancied myself a serious music fan: I had at least, like, 20 albums. iPods, it was obvious, were for posers. Once I got a Saturday job, I saved up for a hardy brick called an iRiver that also held photos and a radio tuner, and wheezed like a geriatric mouse when I laboriously clicked through a music collection largely comprising Tegan and Sara bootlegs downloaded via a dial-up modem. My insistence that it was clearly the better MP3 player was undermined by the fact that absolutely nobody else had one.

As my iRiver struggled on, the iPod got sleeker, and its capacity considerably bigger. In 2007, Apple introduced a 160GB Classic model. I could no longer resist. (Plus I had left school so there was no risk of anyone saying “I told you so”.) I loved it like a pet, updating it and labelling my iTunes library obsessively. I have fond, tragic memories of listening to Mogwai’s Young Team on it as I traipsed through the rain to read Kafka in a Starbucks during my first year of university; listening to the National and feeling sorry for myself alone on a Friday night in my grotty first London house share. More happily, I took it around the world, and the increasingly scratched iPod seemed to grow with me: any time I scrolled to see if an artist I wanted to discover was on there, somehow they always were. (The reality was thanks to a uni friend letting me copy her extensive and largely pirated music library.)

As the 2010s wore on, my iPod’s packed 160GB capacity was no match for the infinite library of Spotify, which I initially tried to use only to research old albums for work. Apple retired the iPod Classic, then they nuked the headphone jack from their phones. As carrying an iPod with its wired headphones and MP3 dependence became more anachronistic, I clung to it, particularly as a form of resistance against distraction – iPod Classics don’t connect to wifi or contain apps, or stop playing when a marketer calls you. That mine still worked – albeit now very dented and prone to pausing at the faintest jolt – felt vaguely meaningful.

Spotify displayed on a smart phone.
New moves … Spotify on smartphone. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But gradually, I succumbed to Spotify creep. I got into exercise, where carrying one device, a phone, is easier than two, and wireless headphones help. (Better still if that device contains Twitter for distraction from squats.) I got into podcasts, which live on my phone. When I got an office job and started commuting, I found that my iPod and wired headphones stayed in my bag as I switched from NPR’s Fresh Air to Spotify, or the brilliant Bandcamp app, to soundtrack my train reading. I got a phone with more space and (embarrassingly) finally figured out how to put MP3s on it.

As of 2020, I’ve stopped carrying my iPod around. I feel so guilty at seeing it on the shelf, that I abandoned it before it died. It’s so feeble to think that the lightest grazes of friction pushed me away from my beloved little music machine. Though maybe it’s more than just convenience. Fifteen years ago, it seemed so thrilling to have thousands of songs in your pocket, the world at your fingertips. With time, I’ve understood that all that access generally amounts to a lot of dabbling and not much commitment. Obviously, Spotify offers the same possibility, but I keep a judicious eye on the albums I save to it, discarding duds and eventually purchasing the good ones while MP3s still exist.

My iTunes library is still intact, an MP3 monolith built on varying degrees of legitimacy that I can pluck from at any time. (You want an illicit recording of the National playing a French radio session in 2006? I got you.) I don’t want to carry it around in my pocket any more, but the slippery way that streaming companies seduce consumers into abandoning their libraries, and the equally slippery way that songs can then vanish from the world’s library (whether the internet or actual, physical warehouses) makes holding on to them, whatever the device, feel like a meaningful form of resistance. Laura Snapes


Alexis Petridis, Ben Beaumont-Thomas and Laura Snapes

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